Mich. Tests Show Charter Schools Lagging Behind

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Do charter schools work? At first blush, the question appears simple enough, but the release this month of statewide test scores in Michigan has shown once again just how tricky it can be.

As a group, Michigan's charter schools scored far lower than the state's schools as a whole in the percentages of students who reached the "proficient" level on the state tests. Michigan education officials emphasized, however, that the scores must be viewed with caution. Some charter schools had been open for only a few months when their students were tested.

And, since many charter schools serve disproportionate numbers of students who are at risk of academic failure, there is no guarantee that test-score comparisons are the best way to judge whether the schools are succeeding.

"For us to say, 'Aha, charters are good, bad, or indifferent' after seeing this data would be very inappropriate," said Peter Bunton, the acting supervisor of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program division in the state education department.

But as the number of charter schools nationwide climbs past 700, charter school observers are hungry for any evidence of how well they are doing. Charter schools, which operate free from many state and local regulations while receiving public funds, are intended to offer high-quality alternatives to traditional public schools. In turn, the theory goes, they will spark districts to improve their own schools.

"Right now, these [test] results fly in the face of that," said Dawn Cooper, a spokeswoman for the 140,000-member Michigan affiliate of the National Education Association.

But even those critical of charter schools say they deserve more time to prove themselves.

Defining Success

Michigan has 106 charter schools operating, including 28 in the metropolitan Detroit area. But far fewer charter schools--state officials last week could not say how many--were included in the test results released this month.

Not all the schools were open when the tests were administered last winter, and not all the schools had the grade levels that were tested. Roughly 800 5th graders and 500 8th graders were tested in charter schools.

State figures released this month enabled comparison of charter schools' performance with the rest of the state's schools on the MEAP. Among 5th graders, for example, only 19.4 percent of charter school students were deemed proficient in science, vs. 36.8 percent of students statewide. In 8th grade science, 8.8 percent of charter school students posted proficient scores, compared with 17.5 percent statewide.

The statewide figures include students from all schools: charters, traditional public schools, and private schools that opt to participate in the statewide assessment.

The Detroit Free Press also compared Detroit's public schools with local charter schools. Detroit's 5th graders had better science and writing test scores than all but three local charter schools, the newspaper reported. And the city's 8th grade scores were better than those of half the local charter schools.

Cumulative Learning

Mr. Bunton of the state education department noted, however, that the tests are designed to measure cumulative learning. So the 5th grade test measures what a child has learned in grades K-4--not just performance during a single year.

"Where the student comes from plays a big part in this," he added.

That charter schools as a whole posted low scores is not shocking, said James N. Goenner, the president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, the term Michigan uses for its charter schools.

Many families are drawn to charter schools precisely because their children have a history of academic failure. And Michigan's charter schools enroll a much higher percentage of minority students--53 percent-- than the 22 percent figure for the state as a whole.

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